Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Spam-Blocker Tool

I have turned on the "word verification" spam-blocker on my comments. Please tell me what you think. Is it worth the hassle to block the spam? Comment spam has seemed to increase so much so quickly that I thought it would be worth seeing how it works.



Today at the Foreigner Police

On Monday morning I went to the post office to pick up a registered letter. The letter informed me that my visa application had been refused. While I had no strong reaction to the news (I could hear the south of France calling), Katka, our personnel lady, did.

On Tuesday afternoon we had a long and rather pointless meeting with Hana, the woman from the visa agency. The only productive thing that came out of it was a further appointment to meet her today at the Foreigner Police.

Katka and I took the tram to the Foreigner Police to meet Hana. We waited for her outside for about 30 minutes, and then we waited another 20 minutes inside for the bureaucratic cow to come and answer our questions.

I think there is a rule that people who work at the Foreigner Police are not allowed to smile or exhibit any understanding of humour. They are definitely not allowed to be reasonable or think beyond their rules and regulations. The cow looked at my old visa and declared that it was not a work visa, and therefore my application for extending a work visa had been pointless. I had originally filled out an application for an entirely new work visa, but Hana’s colleague had insisted that was wrong.

The problem with the old visa was that it was an extraordinary visa given by agreement between the Foreigner Police and the Czech Ministry of Defence, but it was not a work visa because I was contracted to and paid by the US military rather than the Czechs.

So the answer to any question we asked was “no”, and we finally had to concede that I would have to start all over again and go abroad to a Czech embassy or consulate to submit my new application with all of the supporting documentation. Luckily I had originally submitted only notarised copies of my documentation so I still have all the originals. They will be taken back to the notary this afternoon for more copies.

· my work permit from the work office,
· an affidavit from my landlord stating that I have a place to live for the duration of my visa period (1 year),
· an extract from the Czech criminal register stating that I have no criminal record, and
· a notarised affidavit stating that I have no criminal record in the US or in any other country.

Oh no, Katka just came into my office to tell me that we don’t have the original of my landlord’s affidavit so I will have to get another one of those.

All this really means for me in terms of further inconvenience is having to wake up early one morning to be driven to Vienna or Dresden. There are substantial advantages, however; these are that 1) I still cannot sign my employment contract and so can quit whenever I want (a psychological advantage) and 2) I will continue to be paid into a bank account abroad and will pay no taxes for another couple of months.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Joyeux Anniversaire Olivier!!

Have a beautiful day.

Lots of love from Max and Monkey

Our Impending Draft

Another Vanity Fair story: “The Recruiters’ War” by Michael Bronner – this one literally gave me chills.

“There’s no way to recruit within the rules and be successful” – a recently retired army recruiting-station commander.

Approximate recruitment targets:
US Marine Corps 2004 – 37,000
US Marine Corps 2005 – 39,000
US Army 2004 – 77,000
US Army 2005 – 80,000

Army, March 2005 – 27% off target
The army also missed its targets for April, May, June and July.
The Army Reserve has also missed its recruiting targets for 5 consecutive months this year.

In May 2005, the Marine Corps stopped making its recruitment numbers available to journalists.

The VF story was about fraudulent and corrupt recruitment tactics and not about the draft at all, but it is clear evidence that there will be conscription before too long. Especially now that there is talk of increasing troop numbers in Iraq in a futile attempt to calm the place down so that we can leave, as if our government and the Project for the New American Century have any intention of leaving.

In July I tried to bet Bubba $10,000 that there would be a draft within two years; he would only take my wager for $10.

Don't trust the FBI either

Once again I have drawn inspiration from an article in Vanity Fair, this one “An Inconvenient Patriot” by David Rose in the September issue of the magazine. The story is about Sibel Edmonds, a whistle-blower who was fired from her job as a translator for the FBI.

2 December 2001 – Sibel Edmonds first became aware that one of her colleagues had probably leaked information to one or more targets of FBI investigations. The FBI would not investigate the colleague, Melek Can Dickerson, or her husband, a major in the US Air Force, whom Ms. Edmonds also had reason to suspect.

Ms. Dickerson had previously worked at the American-Turkish Council (“ATC”) and was friends with an FBI target who still worked there. Ms. Dickerson failed to tell the FBI she had worked at the ATC on her job application and also during her background security check. These facts were later admitted by the FBI.

At the end of December, Ms. Dickerson managed to fix the listening distribution so that only she would hear wire-taps from the ATC and 3 “high-value” diplomatic targets. It seems that she did this basically so that she could mark calls involving her friend and other counter-intelligence targets as “not pertinent” so that they would not be translated and no one else would ever know what the calls contained.

January 2002 - Dennis Saccher, the special agent in charge of Turkish counter-intelligence, also became suspicious. He asked Ms. Edmonds to listen to some of those calls and she heard evidence of:
· money to a State Department staffer in exchange for information (ATC);
· payment to a Pentagon official in relation to weapons procurement negotiations;
· installation of doctoral students at research institutions for the purpose of gathering information about black-market nuclear weapons;
· money-laundering and drugs; and
· selling of classified defence technology.

Then Saccher was ordered not to pursue the case against Dickerson.

February and March – Ms. Edmonds tried to go higher and higher within the FBI.

February - Ms. Edmonds’ mother and sister had to leave Turkey due to threats, including threats by the Turkish government.

7 March 2002 – Ms. Edmonds met with James Caruso, the deputy assistant director for counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence. During their one hour meeting, Caruso took no notes and asked no questions. Immediately after that meeting, Ms. Edmonds went to lunch with her husband and they were followed.

…they saw two men in suits pull up outside in an FBI-issue SUV. They came inside and sat down at the next table.

“They just sat and stared at Sibel,” Matthew [Edmonds] says. “They took out their cell phones, opened them, and put them on the table. They didn’t eat or drink – just sat, staring at Sibel, the whole time we were there.” Modified cell phones, Sibel knew, are commonly used by bureau agents as a means of making covert recordings.

That afternoon Ms. Edmonds wrote several letters, including letters to the Office of Professional Responsibility at the Department of Justice, as well as the department’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”).

22 March 2002 – Ms. Edmonds was fired from her job with immediate effect and escorted from the building.

The Bush administration has tried to make Ms. Edmonds’ case disappear at every level:
· Major Dickerson was sent to work in Belgium, his wife of course accompanying him.
· Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked state-secrets privilege; the declaration itself is classified. As a result, Ms. Edmonds’ court challenge has been blocked up to the US Court of Appeal. It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court will deal with her case.

These are established FBI patterns:
· Refusal to address internal security flaws, and
· Retaliation against whistle-blowers.

The article further provides a series of shocking stories of other whistle-blowers being discredited and losing their jobs.

January 2005 – The OIG Report finally vindicated Ms. Edmonds.

April 2005 – More than 30 whistle-blowers gathered together by Ms. Edmonds founded a non-profit organisation called the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.

The article closes with a powerful quote from Ms. Edmonds’ late father, something he had said to her when she was a child in Iran: “Sibel, you live your life once. How do you choose to live? According to your principles, or in fear?”

Travels with Max


TSA personnel have no manners and are disrespectful of people and property. I had just checked in and had been told to take my suitcase to be x-rayed. I probably wasn’t paying attention and I went the wrong way so I stopped to ask the first TSA guy I saw where I was supposed to go. I asked very politely, but instead of just giving me a straight answer, the little fucker decided to make fun of me for not knowing which way the x-ray was. I remained polite, said thank you, and went to the x-ray place. I was very polite there too, and I waited in case the x-ray robots wanted me to unlock my suitcase. I watched a TSA moron there put my suitcase on the conveyor belt without putting the handle down all the way. I politely requested him to fix that oversight and to zip the cover closed, which he did.

Then I went upstairs to go through security. There was a little man there directing traffic. In the midst of all of the people, he pulled a brush out of his pocket and brushed his greasy hair. Yuck. A minute later, he addressed me, saying “Come this way”, but without saying “please” and with touching my arm and just being generally creepy.

Murphy, can you do something about this manners problem, please? Thank you.

On the first flight

On my flight from LA to Chicago, one of the announcements was that passengers were only to use the lavatories in the cabin of the plane in which they were seated, “due to security regulations”. About halfway through the flight I got up to use the loo. I walked to the back of the plane but there was a ridiculously long queue so I walked into business class and used the toilet there. I was the only one to do so the entire flight, except for one kid who was about 20. He walked towards the front of economy class to ask his parents, who were sitting in the row in front of me, if he could use the toilet at the front of the plane. His parents told him “no”, that he had to use the toilets in the back. As he turned to walk to the back of the plane, I tapped him on the arm.
“I used the toilet in the front.”
“Did you?”
“I did.”
So he went up there too.

At O’Hare

I decided to forgo dinner so I headed straight for the bar. I ordered Skyy over ice, and the barman, bless him, asked for my ID. I decided to feel very happy and complimented, while ignoring the sign behind the bar which said “To Ensure Responsible Alcohol Service We ID 100%”.

The Trans-Atlantic Flight

2 vodkas in the airport + 1 Xanax upon boarding the plane = sleeping all the way to London. Hooray!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Max is back…almost

My week in the desert is over and I have returned to LA. I head back to Prague later today, and I will be relieved to get out of here. I have now been away for 3 weeks – I am homesick for my own life and I miss my friends.

Here is some of what my week in the desert with my entire family was like.

Top temperature: 114°F. Once I was in Palm Springs at 130°F, but that is another story.

Max’s Dad treated us all like we were kids again – he is a friggin’ control freak.

Asshole kept me sane, believe it or not.

We took an awesome jeep tour out into the real desert and the San Andreas Fault – very educational. Z, my littlest nephew (3 ½ years old), gave us his own revisionist history: the Indians killed all the dinosaurs with their bows and arrows, and then the rattlesnakes killed all the Indians. Way to pass the blame, Z.

Max got in trouble twice at one lunch:
1. Eldest nephew had been pretending to slice across his wrists so I corrected him and explained how to slash properly.
2. Z was under the table and tickling Heidi’s feet (Heidi and Mat visited us for one day and one night). I said, “If you kick him, he’ll stop.” Eldest nephew laughed, everyone else was appalled. An angry chorus of “Max!”

On Tuesday night Max had a meltdown. I do this on every family trip when I just can’t take it anymore. I stayed in and cried and drank whilst everyone else went out to dinner. Asshole had given me his phone before they left: “Make as many calls as you want, talk as long as you like.” Thanks, Asshole, and thank you, DD and knottyboy, for being there for Max at her most desperate.

On Wednesday morning, Max’s Mama and the 3 Sisters had our spa treatments and then cocktails for lunch – possibly the only real relaxation I had all week. (Although sneaking out after my meltdown for drinks with Asshole had been good too.)

One evening Z broke into song when the 2 of us were out on the terrace: a single verse of Johnny Cash’s “Hey, Porter” over and over. Shortly thereafter we were playing around on the floor inside, and later that night Z refused to sit on my lap because “Auntie Max was too aggressive when we wrestled.” Weird kid.

I will be back at work on Monday and intend to get back to my normal posting habits as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

War Games

Russia and China have started playing together in joint exercises called Peace Mission 2005. The games are designed to develop their capability to fight "international terrorism, extremism and separatism" (China's Xinhua news agency). Reports are that at least 10,000 personnel will participate, and ground, sea and air units will be involved, including long-range Russian bombers and other sophisticated weapons systems. That’s a big game.

The most informative article I have found about the war games thus far is here:

Russia and China are unlikely allies. They have never had an easy friendship, and it would appear that there is little mutual trust. The chief aims of the exercises are widely thought to be to send a message of strength to the US and to boost the arms trade between the two countries. But some analysts think the games are practice for an invasion of Taiwan.

The United States is monitoring the drills and has warned that they must not affect regional stability.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Taiwan staged an exercise simulating a Chinese invasion. Their drill involved 3,000 troops.

Next month, Russia and India will stage their first ever joint manoeuvres.

Dream Interpretation: Josef Stalin

Once again I need help interpreting a dream. One of my dreams occurring during the night featured Josef Stalin. I knew him, but our only interaction was that I interrupted him talking to someone else because I needed him to hand me my shampoo, conditioner and shower gel. He complied without any complaint, and practically without breaking his conversation with the other person. The conditioner slipped out of his hand, but he picked it back up and handed it to me. I said, "Thank you," and went on my way. Not sure if this is important, but the conditioner was the brand I have used the last few times at Jono's in London.

I have looked in online dream dictionaries and cannot find an entry for Stalin anywhere. Does anyone have any idea what his appearance in my dream could mean? Thank you.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

3 Quests

Heidi (my best mate from my Peace Corps days) and her son Matĕj came to my parents’ house to get me this morning.

Heidi does not live in the mountains nor does she herd goats. Matĕj is 8 ½ years old. Most people call him Mat; I have called him Buttface since he was a baby (big cheeks), and Heidi often calls him Monkey(!!).

We went to Venice Beach and walked around before going to the Sidewalk Café for lunch. We watched the one-armed waiter serving food, which inspired Heidi to tell the story of the deaf-mute sales assistant at Target. He gave her a piece of paper so she could write down the question, “Are the mops downstairs?”

I asked Heidi questions DD had asked me that I had not been able to answer definitively: How far is Palm Desert from LA? Do we have to drive through mountains to get there? We looked to Mat because he started 4th grade last month and apparently they teach California geography in 4th grade. Mat was able to tell us, amongst other things, that the California state fish is the golden trout. “Why the golden trout?” Heidi and I wondered aloud. Mat answered very confidently, “Because it’s the Golden State, duh.”

Heidi talked about their recent visit to the San Diego Wild Animal Park: “We got to see rhinos mating. It takes hours, apparently.” They had been told that the male rhino’s schlong is so long that he can touch his own chin with it.

We walked on the beach after lunch, dipped our feet in the ocean and watched Mat playing in the wet sand. Heidi and I wondered how someone can get so much pleasure from flinging handfuls of mud into the sea. Kids are weird.

We spotted a very large ship to the south, decided it was a battleship and thus began our first quest of the afternoon.

Heidi: “Come on, Mat, we’re going to find a battleship.”

Mat: “Why?”

Heidi: “Why? There is no why. Whose kid are you?”

We drove down Ocean Avenue to the dead end at the water in Marina del Rey. We got out of the car, spotted a second ship, and tried to figure out how far south we might need to go. Our next stop was Manhattan Beach: mysteriously we could only see one of the ships there. Our third stop was Hermosa. There we saw five ships: 2 big, 2 small and 1 even smaller. We could not positively identify what any of them were. We played on the beach for a little while and then went back to the car.

Heidi had remembered that there was a Czech pub nearby so we decided to go in search of that. “Funny how our quest has changed from a battleship to a beer,” she remarked.

We found the pub, Czech Point (cringe), at 4.34 p.m. The sign on the door said that it opened at 5, so we popped into the Mexican place next door for some non-alcoholic refreshment. We waited for 5 o’clock.

Heidi to Mat: “You can get some fried cheese if you can remember how to say it in Czech.

A suddenly excited Mat said straight away, “Smažený sýr.” Well done, Buttface.

We walked over to Czech Point at 5, but the door was still locked. I took a closer look at the sign and saw that it was closed on Tuesdays. We laughed at ourselves and our second failed quest. We decided to drive back to mine.

En route, we spotted a licence plate frame that said “*** Jesus ***” and “He died *** Opportunity” (*** indicating small print that we could not make out). We wondered if the licence plate frame was accusing Jesus of being an opportunist. We had a new quest: to get close enough to the car to read the small print and discover the real message. The Jesus car changed lanes so we changed lanes – several times, and it seemed that the driver of the Jesus car was getting worried that we were tailing him/her. Heidi was awesome and finally we caught the Jesus car at a red light and read the message: “Give Jesus a Chance, He died for the Opportunity.” We didn’t know what that meant, so we talked about Jesus giving me and Monkey beer money instead.

My Brother's Bar

On my first night in Denver, DD and Audie took me out to My Brother's Bar, the oldest bar in Denver, which is also known for its Beat Generation patrons. Neal Cassady's older brother Jack worked there when it was Paul's Place in the 1940s.

Here is an excerpt from a letter that Neal Cassady wrote to his friend Justin Brierly from juvenile hall:

Dear Justin

At the corner of 15th & Platte streets there's a cafe called Paul's Place, where my brother Jack used to be bartender before he joined the army, because of this I frequented the place occasionally & consequently have a small bill run up, I believe I owe them about 3 or 4 dollars. If you happen to be in that vicinity please drop in & pay it, will you?

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Neal Cassady is portrayed as Dean Moriarty; Justin Brierly appears as Denver B. Doll. Jack Kerouac was also a patron of Paul’s Place.

My Brother’s Bar plays only classical music for historic reasons. The first bartenders working under the current name (1970) also worked for Denver’s classical music station and their influence shaped the bar’s music policy. The bar is also known for its jalapeno cheeseburger.

DD, Audie and I sat outside in the garden, it was lovely.

This post is for Jarda, who loved the Beat poets and wrote his master’s thesis on the works of Jack Kerouac.

Monday, August 15, 2005

On my blog's name change

When I first started this blog on the 31st of March, I had no idea what it would become. I had thought it would be a collection of cheeky stories and so I titled the blog accordingly. Instead, my blog has developed into a showcase of my thoughts and feelings, some quite personal, and today I thought its title should better reflect that.

DD Takes Max to the Nature

Here I am in Denver.

On Saturday, DD took me to Seven Falls in Colorado Springs. The weather was cool and overcast, which was absolutely perfect for an outing to the nature. We first went up the mountain elevator to the observation platform overlooking the falls and the canyon. Absolutely stunning scenery. We took the lift back down again rather than descending the 184 steps as I wanted to save myself for the bigger unavoidable steps.

Then we fed the giant trout that live at the bottom of the falls. When DD listed all of the reasons for visiting Seven Falls, he finished with “…and you get to feed the fish.” DD really likes the fish. The fish too seemed enthusiastic at first as they hungrily lunged for the “fish chow” (DD’s words) but then I think they got bored. DD and I threw in the last of our trout food and walked over to the falls and the steps. Photos over on DD’s blog:

There are 224 steps up to the top of the falls. They are metal and steep and a bit too open for comfort but I was brave, and I had DD behind me. We rested briefly on the 2 landings; the steps were actually not as difficult as I had anticipated (Max is not smoking at all in the America). DD made sure that I took photos. We then walked on the trail back to Midnight Falls; it was all beautiful. DD shared his knowledge of the nature and told me stories about bears and the park service.

From Seven Falls, we headed to Garden of the Gods, which is comprised of dramatic red sandstone rock formations. There we watched a pair of climbers scale a nearly vertical rock face properly, and contrasted their activities to the rescue of two reckless kids that was going on about 30 metres to their left.

Finally we drove back home to Denver for a siesta before going out to a party in the evening. Thanks again for a fabulous day, DD.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Mad Max on the Peace Corps “Military Option”

Three years ago, Congress authorised a recruitment programme for the military which offers recruits the option to fulfill their post-active duty reserve obligations by serving in the Peace Corps. The military has just begun to promote the programme – hmm, I wonder why – and the first batch of recruits enlisted under the programme will be eligible to apply to Peace Corps in 2007.

Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, asked JFK to keep Peace Corps independent, and JFK agreed not to put Peace Corps under the control of the Agency for International Development. Later, Peace Corps fought to uphold the rules which maintained its reputation of independence and neutrality, i.e. barring intelligence officers from joining Peace Corps and prohibiting former volunteers from working for intelligence agencies.

The primary reason for keeping Peace Corps beyond suspicion of any military or intelligence involvement is the safety of current volunteers. A volunteer suspected of being CIA would be in danger almost anywhere Peace Corps operates, likewise a volunteer known to have served in the military. Keep in mind that Peace Corps continues to operate in Muslim countries.

A related concern is the integrity of Peace Corps. “Leave the Peace Corps alone. Let us have one bright star of foreign involvement that has nothing to do with killing people” – John Coyne, returned Peace Corps volunteer, Ethiopia, 1960s.

Chris Matthews (returned Peace Corps volunteer, Swaziland, 1960s) talked to Mark Schneider, a former Peace Corps Director (1999-2001) and Frank Gaffney from the Center for Security Policy on Hardball. The conversation went from the Peace Corps “Military Option” to CIA involvement: all three agreed that there are no CIA recruits amongst Peace Corps volunteers.

On that note, Max, returned Peace Corps volunteer, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, 1992-1994, has a revelation for you. I know for a fact that the CIA actively recruits amongst people who are about to depart on their Peace Corps service. The CIA did not contact me (they are not that stupid) but they did try to recruit at least one of my fellow volunteers. My friend refused their offer, which came with a cash incentive, but I am certain that there are Peace Corps volunteers who take them up on it.

So now it is out in the open: there are CIA informants in the Peace Corps and there will soon be military reservists. The integrity of the Peace Corps has been destroyed. Well done, motherfuckers.

Thanks for the computer time, DD.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Support Our Troops, NOT the War

I read a story on the front page of the LA Times this morning about 2 brothers who went to fight in Iraq; sadly only one of them came home alive. The two brothers were from the Ohio reserve battalion, the “Three Twenty-Five”, which is now famous for having lost 47 men since arriving in Iraq in March. The article told a touching story about a community paying tribute to one of its fallen sons, and there was a lot in the article that angered me.

The slain marine’s young widow gave a brave eulogy, and I admire her for being able to do so. “In order for me to get through this, honor all our service members every day. If you see one, salute them. Or stop in the recruiting office, or the VFW, and thank them.”

NO! I wanted to yell at her. Don’t thank them in the recruiting office. Convince them not to sign up instead.

The surviving brother also spoke at the funeral. He explained that his dead brother “believed he was fighting to protect his family and fellow citizens.”

My response: in Iraq? He was not protecting his wife and his baby son by being in Iraq, by dying in Iraq. Stop believing the lies already.

The brother went on to tell the story of his brother “scoring” the first combat kills for their battalion when he shot 3 insurgents who were attempting to plant roadside bombs. “He sent all three of those guys to hell where they belonged.”

Perspective is an interesting thing. Why are so many Americans still so sure that we are right?

The surviving brother is not being sent back to Iraq because the unit is scheduled to return home next month. “I wish I was still with them, fighting the good fight.”

It is not a good fight. It is a pointless war.

“I know my brother feels the same way.”

Your brother is dead, tragically and for nothing.

I am deeply disturbed by how so many people think it is their patriotic duty to keep supporting the war. Enough already. Patriotism is better served by objecting to the war, by protesting the war, by bringing our troops back home.

Lunch with Dad

On the 24th of July, Sinister Steve wrote a guest blog about last meals over at DD’s. I commented that I would be too nervous to eat a last meal; however yesterday I decided that if they would let me out to go to a sushi bar, I would have exactly what I had for lunch yesterday with my dad. Dad left the ordering up to me, and this is what we had:

  1. Hamachi Usuzukuri – melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail tuna sashimi with chili peppers, cilantro, green onion and ponzu sauce
  2. Uni – sea urchin. That is the one thing I won’t share, so we had two orders. Futatsu uni sushi, onegai shi mas. (Anna O long ago taught me to order in Japanese.)
  3. Spicy tuna roll
  4. Unagi – eel
  5. Amaebi – sweet prawns. The bodies were served as sushi and then we had the heads cooked in miso soup.
  6. Toro – fatty tuna
  7. Marinated albacore sashimi – ponzu, smelt eggs, onion, cucumber and kaiware seeds
  8. I finished off with a second order of uni; Dad had more spicy tuna.
My beverage: Kirin Ichiban draft.

Happy Birthday to the Beautiful kd

Sorry to miss the festivities, darling. I'll be thinking of you, and drinks will be drunk in Denver in your honour. Have a perfect day. Birthday kisses etc (ooh la la) will be delivered upon my return to Praha.
Big big love

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Freezing in LA

I hate air conditioning. Sometimes I can appreciate it, but mostly it makes me too cold and it gives me a sore throat. Occasionally it nauseates me too.

Yesterday I was in the car with my dad and he had the temperature set at 68°F (20°C). What the fuck?! I had to open my window to get some warmer air. My family, of course, know my problem and they try not to let the air blow directly on me and no one complains when I do open a window (even though I know it annoys them). Once Big Sister’s ex-husband objected to my open window so I closed it and vomited on him. Luckily the A/C is rarely on at my parents’ because we have the breeze from the ocean.

Last night in the dreaded Valley, we walked into a restaurant that was so air conditioned that I was uncomfortable. Everyone else thought it was normal to walk into a refrigerator to eat. I was wearing a summery dress which had been appropriate to the weather outside, but suddenly my arms and legs were absolutely chilled. I finally managed to warm up a bit once I had my Jack Daniels.

Moral of the story: I will be taking something warm with me to wear wherever I go from now on. August in LA.

On being Auntie Max

Yesterday I volunteered to drive down to Irvine to pick up my Eldest Nephew and Big Sister took me up on it despite the fact that I had not driven at all for 3 years. I hate LA freeways and I was a bit nervous, but the drive down turned out to be really enjoyable. I had the convertible and the pre-set radio stations came through for me with lots of sing-along music, much of it very LA nostalgic.

Irvine is creepy in an űber-suburban way – enough said. I got to Eldest Nephew’s best friend W’s house. “Auntie Max!!” and I got a great big hug from a gorgeous 6-foot tall 15-year old, which is, after all, sometimes exactly what a girl needs.

Eldest Nephew and I chatted in the car, back at my parents’, and later at the mourning house. Eldest Nephew had complaints about his mom, my Big Sister. He called her selfish and was gratified when I told him that I had told her exactly that to her face (well, on the phone) a few hours earlier. The talk got round to Eldest Nephew’s drinking habits: turns out he’s a vodka man. I like that Eldest Nephew is smart enough to know that he can trust Auntie Max, Aunt Little Sister and Uncle Asshole, and be confident that nothing will get back to his mom.

Eldest Nephew complained about his curfew and asked me what his mom had been doing at age 15. I called Annie’s daughter over for help and she brought up the time the SWAT team had surrounded our house when Big Sister was having a party. Eldest Nephew was deeply disappointed to find out that was only because someone had pressed the panic button rather than that some of the kids had thrown Molotov cocktails into a neighbour’s house. He wanted stories about kids being told to lie on their faces on the ground at gunpoint. So I told him about the time that Little Sister had been handcuffed by the police when she had pissed the neighbours off by having a punk band in the backyard.

“Did you ever tell Grandma and Grandpa?”

“Well, yeah, like 15 years later.”

Being Auntie Max is cool.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Drinking with Max's Mom

There had not been any alcohol at the post-funeral gathering, the reason being that Annie’s siblings are all alcoholics in recovery. So as soon as Max’s family got home, the bar was open. Max’s mom asked for a small black Russian, ‘small’ meaning that the 1 ounce measure should be used rather than the 1.5 ounce measure, so the final product would be a mere 3 ounces of alcohol rather than the usual 4.5 ounces.

Black Russian: 2 measures of vodka + 1 measure of decaffeinated kahlúa. That’s right: Max’s mom is health-conscious and prefers to consume her excess of alcohol without an excess of caffeine. Especially useful when one does not wish to risk a good night's sleep. You may be wondering where one gets decaffeinated kahlúa, and the answer would be that one makes it oneself. Here is the recipe:

Max’s mom’s decaffeinated kahlúa

4 cups water
3 cups sugar
12 slightly rounded teaspoons instant decaffeinated coffee
1 fifth 100 proof vodka
3 teaspoons vanilla extract

  1. Dissolve sugar in water and then dissolve coffee into mixture.
  2. Bring to boil and let simmer 1-1 ½ hours (uncovered).
  3. Remove from heat. Allow to cool.
  4. Add vodka and vanilla.

Makes almost 2 fifths.

Melancholy Monday

I like a good funeral.

It was 102°F (39°C) in the San Fernando Valley; I will never understand why people live there of their own free will. Going into the funeral home (why is it called a ‘home’?) was bizarre – dozens of people that looked vaguely familiar. Everyone knew my parents but, because I look nothing like either of them, people looked at me very puzzled, like they couldn’t figure out who I was. As I was introduced, people actually said things like, “Oh my goodness, I never would have known. Last time I saw you, you were only this high.” Blah blah blah. Jesus.

I am still angry there was no funeral for Jarda and that is part of the reason I had to be at Annie’s. The rabbi was brilliant. No one else spoke at the service but the rabbi read some things that Annie’s family had written about her, and the rabbi just talked about what an amazing person Annie was and he was successful in capturing her spirit.

The things I loved about Annie were that she was always positive, she only ever said nice things about people. I have wondered all my life how she could resist making snide comments because she had a great sense of humour and a sharp wit. But she would never be unkind. If she met one of my friends once 20 years ago, she would ask me about that person regularly. She once sent me a doll, a monster from Where the Wild Things Are, when I was already a divorcée in my 30s, because she had seen the doll in a shop and remembered that it was my favourite book from childhood. I have never visited LA without seeing Annie and H., her husband.

Annie was selfless. She had written sincere thank you notes to the doctors who had tried to save her, and had consoled the nurses as she was dying. Annie sent early birthday and anniversary cards to people. My mom received both on the day of Annie’s death. Annie wrote cards for the people to whom she was closest to be given to them just after her funeral. Mom got one of those too.

I was overcome by sadness during Annie’s service, even while laughing at some of the stories the rabbi was telling. It got worse as I watched my parents walk out with the coffin, my dad as a pallbearer, my mom behind as an honorary pallbearer.

The graveside ceremony was very quick because of the heat, and because Annie did not want any of the mourners throwing dirt on her grave. She had found that ritual overly dramatic and maudlin. I walked away from the gravesite with my mom. She pointed to a nearby gravestone: “Did you notice who’s buried just there?” I looked and it was Danny J., a kid I had gone to Hebrew school with who had grown up to do amazing philanthropic work but who got sick and died last year. That was when the sadness became overwhelming and I fell sobbing into my mom’s arms. Fucking hell, enough already.

We drove over to Annie’s sister-in-law’s house. All day people asked me if my mom was all right, including Annie’s kids. Annie’s husband and daughter talked to me about Jarda, telling me how sorry they were and how upset Annie had been. Annie’s son hugged my mom and said, “She was just crazy about you, you know.” My poor little mom.

The evening service was a renewal of strong emotion. I got comfort from the familiar Hebrew prayers: I love the sounds of the words and the cadence, I like to sing. I don’t like reading prayers in English because then I have to pay more attention to what the words mean and that is hard because I don’t believe any of it. We read the mourner’s prayer twice (in Hebrew) - that set me off again because I was saying it both for Jarda and for Annie.

I have cried and cried and cried, but now that I have had an outlet for my grief, I will be able to get back to my life more completely starting today. And that is why I like a good funeral.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Nobody Walks in LA

People think no one walks in LA and therefore everyone doubts me when I tell them that my parents live in a walky neighbourhood and walk all over the place. It is especially convenient to walk somewhere for dinner because that way everyone can drink.

I went for a walk with my parents today. It is their normal Sunday thing to walk down to the local farmers' market after breakfast. As we were strolling down our street I saw 2 Hummers go by within 5 minutes of each other. I commented on it and my dad said, "Welcome to Brentwood." I had thought Hummers were for men with small dicks, but both of these were being driven by women.

I had taken one of my mom's sunhats, absolutely necessary here as the sun is much stronger than I am used to. By the time we got down to the market, my head was hurting because the hat was a bit small. Same conversation every time:
Max - My head hurts, this hat is too small.
Mom - That is because you have a big head.
Max - I need it to hold my big brain.
Mom - And your big ego.

It is nice to be back with my mom. We'll be going shopping for a new hat tomorrow.

I argued politics with my parents over breakfast; I think I had held out pretty well considering I had already been here for over 12 hours.

Walking back up our street from the farmers' market, I noticed that at least for a while every 2nd car was an SUV. It makes me sad that people really just don't think. Gas is about to go above ₤1 per litre in the UK; that is roughly $8 a gallon. And people continue to kill and be killed in Iraq.

I started reading the latest
Harry Potter on the plane from London yesterday. I am over 400 pages into it and will finish by tomorrow. It is as engaging as the earlier books but not nearly as interesting, and I think I am bored with Harry Potter, the same way I could only watch 18 hours of 24.

I told my parents last night that I might quit my job to move to a village in the south of France with Monkey so that I can write. My dad ignored me (there was baseball on the tv) and my mom said that she was sure that I had a novel in me because I had led a very interesting life thus far. I was primed for a fight, but I realised that I cannot surprise them anymore and they will no longer object to anything I decide to do.

I don't like LA but I don't hate it. I would never live here again, it's too weird. Prague is so much nicer.

Max in the America

Here I am in LA, 10 days earlier than originally planned. I left Prague 5 days ahead of schedule and skipped going to London ostensibly to be able to go to a funeral here, but I think I really just wanted to see my mom.

My dad called me at 1.40 a.m. on Saturday to tell me that he had got my ticket changed and that my flight from Prague was at 7.45. I went back to sleep for 3 hours. Prague-London, London-New York, New York-LA. My parents were waiting for me at the airport and I saw immediately on my mom's face that Annie had died while I was flying. Annie had been my mom's best friend for 35 years, and my very good friend too.

It feels weird to be in the America but I think I needed to take some time out and just come back here and be a spoiled kid for a while at my parents' house. Dad made martinis when we got home and I booked a ticket to go to Denver next weekend.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Bare Flesh

I love going to lunch on my own with a book, a magazine or a newspaper; today was the only day this week that I have been able to do so. One of the things I read this lunchtime was AA Gill’s column from The Sunday Times Style magazine, which had me quietly chuckling to myself over a grilled vegetable salad. Gill was lamenting global warming because the English do not know how to dress for it.

Frankly, I don’t give a toss if half a dozen Pacific islands become an underwater adventure destination for sharks (serves the islanders right for eating strangers), and I don’t much care if Greece becomes part of a new, improved Aegean. But I do mind having to look at the English attempting the sweaty equation of heat, going out, Sunday and “my wardrobe”.

What is it that makes English bodies so spectacularly repellent in the daylight? It isn’t
simply the clammy, adipose, maggoty-white flesh, with its zits and lesions and dry, scrofulous craters. It’s the distribution that so noisomely offends. The softly curdled lumps that hang like fungus on beech trees, the swaying underarms, the double nuggets of cheesy flob behind the knees, the exhausted, stretched, who-cares haggis of gut, the shuddering, horrified backsides, with their wrinkled, slippery clefts and creases, the thighs pitted like rain on cold sand – all of it shaped and moulded by waistbands and straps that were hopeful three years and 4in past.

My friends have heard me on the subject many times - dress for your body. It is one of Max’s pet peeves that so many people walk around in public, or even serve me drinks, showing bits of their bodies that would best be left covered forever. It is not at all that I have a perfect body; in fact I am quite secure in saying that I do not. The thing is that I also do not insist on showing bits of flesh that absolutely no one wants to see. I am tired of bare midriffs and thongs crawling out of trousers that are cut too low. I am sick of seeing waists bulging out over belts that are too low and too tight. Show a bit of cleavage, sure, and perhaps fleeting glimpses of skin elsewhere, but please leave the rest up to the imagination.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Jester

I went to see The Jester today to change a prescription. The previous pills had produced a side effect in the form of a dry cough, which has been driving me crazy by interrupting my normally flawless sleep pattern.

The first thing I did was tell The Jester that I needed different pills. He was annoyed at me because the pills I had been taking had been working perfectly and now he would have to look in two different books and try to figure out what else to try. Finally he wrote out a prescription and then expected me to just go, but I asked for more.

“Monkey wanted me to ask if you would write a prescription for some more Viagra and Cialis.” The Jester reached once again for his prescription pad.

“How many of each does he want?”

“As many as he can get, I guess.”

“I’ll write him a prescription for four packets of each.” Pills here come in pre-packaged boxes rather than little personalised bottles.

The Jester then once again made as if I should leave.

“Um, don’t you want to take my blood pressure?” That was, after all, what I was taking the pills for.

“No, no need. I’ll just see that it’s fine and it doesn’t matter because you are changing medication anyway.”

“Well, I would feel better if you would take my blood pressure.” This was still a new thing for me and I didn't really trust that the medication would still be working just because it was working the last time.

Sigh. “Okay then.”

“120 over 80.”

“Oh, that’s good then. Thank you, that makes me feel better.”

“Well, it makes me feel miserable because the old medication was doing the job and now we will be dealing with an unknown.”

Then The Jester told the receptionist to charge me 40% extra because he had written out the prescriptions for Monkey too. Monkey keeps saying that we need to find a real doctor.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Comic Relief

My 12-year old nephew is away at summer camp. I get to send him e-mails while he is there, and it is important for him that I do, however there is only so much I can really say to a 12-year old kid in a one-way communication. So I had this idea, that he might like it if I sent him some jokes. The problem I have run into is that I don't know any appropriate jokes, such jokes being clean, PC and suitable for children. I am aware that the kids tell inappropriate jokes to each other, but I am Auntie Max and I must set an example. Not only that, but the e-mails go through the camp administration so I wouldn't get away with it.

Fellow bloggers, would you please donate some jokes to my cause? An added benefit is that they might lighten all of our moods a little bit.


Hate Your Neighbour

hate intense hostility or dislike; loathing

hate crime a crime that is committed against somebody because the perpetrator disapproves of their race, sexuality, religion, etc. It usually takes the form of physical violence, verbal abuse or threats, or damage to property, etc.

Scotland Yard: crimes motivated by religious hatred have jumped by nearly 600% in London since 7th July.

Statistics compiled by Human Rights First for the OSCE, published 31 May 2005:

Only 3 OSCE member countries provided thorough and reliable data on hate crimes as requested. That is 3 out of 55. They were the US, Canada and the UK.

Only 19 of the 55 countries have laws in force to punish crimes motivated by racism.

Only 5 of the 19 countries have enacted legislation to punish crimes motivated by sexual orientation and disability bias – Belgium, Canada, France, Spain, UK, as well as 29 states of the US and the District of Columbia.

Only 4 countries plus 26 states and DC have laws that punish hate crimes based on gender (Belgium, Canada, France, Spain).

In the United Kingdom, anti-Jewish violent personal assaults doubled in 2004 over the previous year.

In France, anti-Jewish violent offences were up 63% from 2003 to 2004. In 2002 there were 41 violent hate crimes against gay men, and in 2003 there were 86. In 2003 there were 232 attacks classified as acts of “racism and xenophobia”, victims mostly North African, and in 2004 there were 595.

In the United States, there were 28 hate crimes against Muslims in 2000, and 481 in 2001.

If you would like to know about murders, violent attacks, cemeteries being desecrated, mosques being burned, children being beaten up, a gay man being set on fire and more, have a look at the report:

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Will we never learn?

My morning reading today has included one article about Hiroshima survivors talking to students in Japan and another about the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to German victims of a massacre in post-war Czechoslovakia.

Reading about the Hiroshima survivors reminded me of my own experiences of listening to Holocaust survivors every year at Hebrew school. “Remember” and “never again” were the catchphrases that over time and through other genocides have been rendered meaningless.

The plaque in Ústí nad Labem is controversial because of the continuing tension between Czechs and Sudeten Germans. Its placement on the Edvard Beneš Bridge is controversial because President Beneš was the one who signed the order expelling 2.5 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after WWII. But on the other hand, it was from this very bridge that several (no one knows how many) Germans were thrown to their deaths into the Labe (Elbe) during the massacre.

The massacre in Ústí happened on 31st July 1945; the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 6th and 9th August. 60 years have gone by and what have we learned?

One of the Hiroshima survivors talked about Japan being both an aggressor and a victim and it is clear to me that we are no different. The United States is an aggressor in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States was a victim on 9/11 and will doubtlessly suffer further attacks as the campaigns go on. My point here is not cause and effect, or even chronology, but only that it seems that every aggressor is doomed to also be a victim in turn. It makes the whole exercise of war look pretty pointless from every perspective.

Ominous midday bells again...

Monday, August 01, 2005

Wouldn't you like to be a Nazi too?

I have just read an interesting article written by a limey whose grandad was in the Waffen SS.

The writer never knew his grandad, who was killed in Prague in 1945, so he never got to ask him what he had actually done during the war. What he does know is that his grandad was a member of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, which was the premier regiment of the Waffen SS, and rumoured to have been involved in the execution of civilians and POWs. The writer acknowledges that his grandad must have “been involved at some level even if that involvement was just driving a truck and turning a blind eye.”

The writer’s family have a collection of photographs taken by the grandad during WWII, which depict him sight-seeing in Paris, playing football and passing the time with his mates in other benign ways.

…it’s impossible to avoid what one always hopes wasn’t true about the Third Reich – these men are not monsters. No matter what sort of gangsters, charlatans and psychopaths they may have been following, the vast majority of the German people, even the vast majority of the Waffen SS, were normal people.

…And that I suppose is why I find this microscopic story of an insignificant part of the Third Reich so fascinating. If it shows that my grandfather can not only stand aside while bad things happen but actively take part, then it could happen to any of us.

I believe that the writer is correct. I believe that as Americans in a society which is progressing towards totalitarianism, we need to be wary of the phenomenon of normal people becoming capable of doing evil things. We need to remember that just because someone has official sanction and is wearing a uniform, whether TSA or NYPD or whatever, does not mean that s/he is looking out for us. In fact, we need to keep in mind that our government has interests that not only have nothing to do with our security and well-being but are, in fact, in conflict with them. That government is manipulating people to do their dirty work. Beware, for we are in danger of becoming a nation of Nazis and informers.

...and now the unbearable heaviness

My office is in the Old Town area of Prague. We are right next to the Church of St Giles and I can see countless other churches from my window including St Vitus Cathedral up at the castle, and both St Nicholas and Our Lady of Týn on Old Town Square. Church bells gong on the quarter-hour and there is an extended ringing of bells at midday. I used to love the sound of the bells ringing, the depth, resonance and melody. But now for some reason the bells have started to sound ominous to me, sending chills through my body, as if heralding the onset of some great catastrophe.

I have been sad lately. My sadness makes me overly sensitive, intolerant, cranky and mean; yesterday I was an absolute bitch on the phone to my parents. I feel like I cannot help it, although Monkey says that’s nonsense and deep down I know he is right. But I am not ready to shake the sadness: it comes from a deep despair inspired by the state of the world and the evil of some of the people in it.

I am an American and proud to come from such a great country. But I despair that we have embarked on a downward spiral into martial law. Provisions of the Patriot Act, searches on the subway, anyone that looks dark and spooky being treated as suspicious, electronic tracking devices for people crossing the border from Canada, fingerprinting everyone who visits our country… What is next? The trend is ominous.

I am going to the US this month, flying over sometime between the 6th and the 16th. Monkey does not exactly try to talk me out of it, he merely drops small but frequent hints that I must be out of my mind to want to go to the US right now. I don’t really want to go but I have family commitments and feel I have to go, and I really need a holiday at any rate.

I wish this feeling of dread would go away; I am not comfortable with the heaviness.